Subcomandante Marcos and the Zapatista Movement: Land, Nationhood, and Autonomy Reply

By Jamie O’Hara and Craig Fitzgerald

 This essay is included in the recently released NATIONAL-ANARCHISM: HEROES AND VILLAINS, edited by Troy Southgate and available from Black Front Press.
By Jamie O’Hara and Craig FitzGerald
In order for decentralized autonomy to flourish, independent communities must be internally cohesive. This tribal unity is the essence of nationalism, and indigenous groups have lived in accordance with the principle for millennia. However, people who are products of a globalized corporate state easily misunderstand this organic nationalism and therefore attack it. But this comes from the confusion of nations with states. The distinction between these two entities cannot be emphasized enough. Ward Churchill successfully expresses this difference, and the indigenous perspective within which he contextualizes his point only elucidates things further:

 

“One conflation of terms that…still seems to be plaguing the discourse, is the conflation of the term ‘nation’ and the term ‘state.’ …A lot of anarchists [are] running around thinking they’re anti-nationalist, that nationality, nationalism in all forms, is necessarily some sort of an evil to be combated, when that’s exactly what they’re trying to create. You’ve got four or five thousand nations on the planet; you’ve got two hundred states. They’re using ‘anti-nationalist’ as a code word for being anti-statist. With indigenous peoples, nationality is an affirmative ideal, and it hasn’t got any similarity at all to state structures”. [1]

 

 

Something that has been intuitive for indigenous tribes throughout history is blocked from the consciousness of the rest of the world by schismatic mental constructs that exalt concepts and language over the nuances of practical reality. But not all radicals fall into this camp. Autonomous communities that have been influenced by indigenous methods of social organization are the best examples of sustainable independence. One of the most successful current examples of this is the Zapatista movement in Mexico, which syncretizes indigenous traditions and revolutionary political theory.

 

 

Chiapas was an ideal place for the Zapatista movement’s birth. The Mayan ethnic groups who live there had for years experienced a de facto autonomy resulting from the government’s neglect. [2] They also were self-organized according to their cultural values and customs. In 1983, three mestizos with backgrounds in the Mexican guerrilla group the National Liberation Forces arrived to the region and joined three indigenous people to found the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN in Spanish). One of those mestizos, known as Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, had a very authoritarian approach to organizing the movement . However, he soon realized the necessity to include the indigenous villages who lived where he and his companeros planned to challenge the Mexican state. [3] Marcos explained to a group of young anarchists that he arrived feeling like the revolutionary vanguard, but later recognized the importance for all individuals to have a voice in the affairs of their homelands. [4] In another interview, Marcos describes this philosophical evolution:

 

 

…we learned that you can’t impose a form of politics on the people because sooner or later you’ll end up doing the same thing you criticized. You criticize a totalitarian system and then you offer another totalitarian system. You can’t impose a political system by force. Before, they said ‘let’s get rid of this system of government and put in this other kind of system.’ We say, ‘no, the political system can’t be the product of war.’ The war should only be to open up space in the political arena so that the people can really have a choice. It doesn’t matter who wins, it doesn’t matter if it’s the extreme right or the extreme left, as long as they earn the confidence of the people. [5]

 

 

Marcos learned that the methods of social organization used in these indigenous communities, including a horizontal decision making process, are ancient elements of Mayan culture. [6] By harmonizing his goals and methods with the local values and customs, Marcos evolved out of his totalitarian leftist dogmatism and deepened his understanding of the relationship between land, culture, nationhood and self-determination.

 

 

Since the Zapatista uprising in January 1994, [7] Subcomandante Marcos has been the subject of a disproportionate amount of media attention. To a certain degree, this makes sense—he is the group’s spokesperson, and he possesses several traits (including a university education and eloquent language skills) that make him the ideal public relations representative. But at the same time, media outlets in Mexico and abroad were infatuated with Marcos and tended to neglect the majority of EZLN soldiers, the “humble and simple” [8] indigenous men and women who made the movement possible. Despite becoming somewhat of a celebrity, Marcos has consistently rejected a position of unilateral leadership. [9]

 

 

One example of this rejection is the Subcomandante’s voluntary submission to the military hierarchy of the CCRI-CG (Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee – General Command). Similarly, in the EZLN’s unarmed counterpart, the Other Campaign, [10] Marcos’ title is “Delegate (or subdelegate) Zero.” The name, which was introduced in the context of Mexico’s 2006 presidential election, accomplishes several things: it satirizes the candidates in the country’s spotlight at the time, it communicates a sense of transcending political party conflicts, and it implies Marcos’ own relative insignificance. This humility is not often seen in such influential political personas. It is important from an anarchist perspective because it demonstrates that leadership can be a fluid entity, and is not necessarily a question of absolute power. Rather than being inherently oppressive, true leadership is merely a manifestation of voluntary association. In an anarchist context, people can make a conscious decision to “follow” or support a certain individual for a particular purpose. Conversely, the “leader” also consciously chooses whether or not to assume responsibility and accountability to these supporters. Each side of the relationship is sovereign and can opt out of the situation altogether for any reason. This is the kind of leadership taken on by Marcos. The Zapatistas proclaim that they “command by obeying.”

 

 

Such reciprocal relationships among co-creators of communities (including within voluntary hierarchies like the EZLN) are a reflection of Mayan culture and spiritual worldview. This correspondence of political necessities and religious values also explains why land is so important from an indigenous perspective. “Tierra y Libertad!” was the slogan of the original Zapatista movement, and it continues to be a core value of the neo-Zapatistas. For indigenous people in Mexico and all over the world, land is more than a practical necessity. It is not merely the source of one’s tangible livelihood; it is also the source of one’s spiritual connection to the universe as a whole. Self-sufficiency that utilizes natural resources in harmony with the larger ecosystem is part of the process of fulfilling the destiny of humanity. Being indigenous or native to a particular piece of land adds a dimension of meaning to one’s relationship with the earth and highlights the importance of local self-determination. People contribute to the symbiotic nature of the environment by playing unique, crucial roles in microcosmic bioregions. As Neyra P. Alvarado Solis explains in “Land and Indigenous Cosmovision,”

 

 

In Mexico today, there are officially fifty-six ethnic groups; within these can be found a linguistic and cultural variety which far exceeds that number. The cosmovision of each group expresses a regional and communal reality, elaborated through history. These are agrarian cultures where land is life, sustained by relationships with supernatural forces and nurtured in communal and familial rituals… [11]

 

 

Ethnic, linguistic, and cultural diversity are intrinsically connected to biological and natural diversity. There is value in the preservation of each life form, but there is also value in syncretism and diffusion, which are equally natural aspects of existence. Despite the fact that people inhabit different geographical areas with different flora, fauna, topography and aquatic systems, everyone has the same interdependent relationship with the earth, which we all need for survival. Consistent with Mayan religious symbol and myth, the Zapatistas use agrarian metaphors to describe their vision of conducting politics. In his closing speech to the National Indigenous Forum on January 9, 1996, Marcos says:

 

 

Brothers and sisters:

 

Each one has his own field, his own planting, but we all have the same village, although sometimes we speak different languages and wear different clothes. We invite each of you to plant your own plot and in your own way. We invite you to make of this forum a good tiller and make sure that everyone has seed and that the earth be well prepared. [12]

 

 

These words illustrate the cooperative relationship between diverse individual localities and the wider reality of the one earth we share. Such a relationship is not one of homogeneity or universalism, but complementarity in the sense that the infinite forms of matter in the universe co-create our experience. Zapatista identity extends outwardly into the macrocosm; their organization of “Intergalactic” activist meetings reflects this character.

 

 

For the Zapatista movement today (like that of the nineteenth century), nationhood is a flexible and layered concept. One’s identification with the nation of Mexico does not preclude one’s identification as indigenous, Maya, Chiapaneca, Tzotzil, female, elderly, and so on to the most microcosmic levels. In fact, these multiple nations are understood to constitute the essence of an autonomous world. As a result of this view, the rights of ethnic self-determination and cultural preservation are defended. Everyone is welcome, but the caracoles [13] do not have open door policies. Visitors must acquiesce to required application processes or have existing connections to individuals or groups with “Zapatista passports.” [14] This is an obvious necessity for security; the EZLN and the Other Campaign are aggressively targeted by the Mexican government and military.

 

 

According to Marcos, the Zapatistas believe that “Mexico should reconstruct the concept of nation.” [15] Despite the predominantly indigenous makeup of the Zapatista movement, and despite the EZLN’s opposition to the Mexican state, the national identity of the Zapatistas as Mexican is upheld. This is criticized by many radicals, whose dogma makes it confusing to them. Why do the Zapatistas fly the Mexican flag above the black and red? Why do they employ constitutional arguments? Why are they willing to dialogue with the government? Why do they make national-chauvinistic comments like, “in no way will the EZLN’s Sixth Committee accept any persons on their security team who are of any nationality other than Mexican”? [16] The answer is because, once again, the Zapatista conception of nationhood is a fluid one. It is malleable in the hands of each individual. Engaging a diversity of tactics in the struggle against such a pervasive oppression is not only pragmatic, but it indicates that the refusal to be limited by ideological schisms is the future of a decentralized, autonomous liberation movement.

 

 

Despite some anarchist and socialist nitpicking, [17] the Zapatistas have had great appeal because of their very defiance of political and ideological boxes. Scholars have remarked on this quality, [18] but Marcos himself captures the dynamic best by admitting guilt to a slew of charges from every possible angle. It is worth quoting at length:

 

 

The whites accuse him of being dark. Guilty.

 

The dark ones accuse him of being white. Guilty.

 

The authentic accuse him of being indigenous. Guilty.

 

The treasonous indigenous accuse him of being mestizo. Guilty.

 

The machos accuse him of being feminine. Guilty.

 

The feminists accuse him of being macho. Guilty.

 

The communists accuse him of being anarchist. Guilty.

 

The anarchists accuse him of being orthodox. Guilty.

 

The Anglos accuse him of being Chicano. Guilty.

 

The anti-Semites accuse him of being pro-Jews. Guilty.

 

The Jews accuse him of being pro-Arab. Guilty.

 

The Europeans accuse him of being Asiatic. Guilty.

 

The government officials accuse him of being an oppositionist. Guilty.

 

The reformists accuse him of being an extremist, a radical. Guilty.

 

The radicals accuse him of being reformist. Guilty.

 

The “historical vanguard” accuses him of appealing to the civic society and not to the proletariat. Guilty.

 

The civic society accuses him of disturbing their tranquility. Guilty.

 

The Stock Exchange accuses him of ruining their breakfast. Guilty.

 

The government accuses him of increasing the consumption of antacids by government agencies. Guilty.

 

The serious ones accuse him of being a jokester. Guilty.

 

The adults accuse him of being a child. Guilty.

 

The children accuse him of being an adult. Guilty.

 

The orthodox leftists accuse him of not condemning the homosexuals and lesbians. Guilty.

 

The theoreticians accuse him of being a practitioner. Guilty.

 

The practitioners accuse him of being a theorist. Guilty.

 

Everyone accuses him of everything bad that has happened. Guilty. [19]

 

 

This sentiment conveys a transcendence of dogma that is necessary for modern times. It also communicates a kind of lightheartedness that would benefit the radical political milieu. These accusations, as “true” as they all may be, cannot be taken too seriously. When people who believe in freedom and autonomy cease to argue with one another, they will have time to actually accomplish important things in their communities. It is important to be conscious of how we communicate and interact because the dynamic among diverse activists and tribes foreshadows the future without the state. This does not mean that everyone has to agree. The Zapatista vision encourages an endless range of different autonomies. The idea is to create “a world in which many worlds fit.” [20]
References
  1. Churchill, Ward. Upping the Anti, No. 1.
  2. Mattiace, Shannan L. “Mayan Utopias: Rethinking the State,” 188.
  3. Higgins, Nicholas. “The Zapatista Uprising and the Poetics of Cultural Resistance.”
  4. Weinberg, Bill. Homage to Chiapas, 197.
  5. Subcomandante Marcos. Interview with Medea Benjamin, 61.
  6. Subcomandante Marcos. “A Storm and a Prophecy: Chiapas: The Southeast in Two Winds,” 33. Aubry, Andres. “Autonomy in the San Andres Accords: Expression and Fulfillment of a New Federal Pact,” 225.
  7. At midnight on New Years Day, the EZLN released the First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, in which they expressed their reasons for declaring war on the Mexican state. The EZLN seized several Chiapas locations, destroying military structures and liberating prisoners in San Cristobal de las Casas. Many books and articles have detailed these events, and Zapatista communiques were consistently issued. The First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle is a good place to start.
  8. EZLN. Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.
  9. Marcos has never appeared in public without wearing his mask. He explains that the mask is like a mirror. All individuals can look at his face and see themselves.
  10. The EZLN is the miltary wing of the Zapatista movement. The Other Campaign, created in 2006, is a strictly civilian-oriented project aimed at facilitating autonomy for many different groups.
  11. Alvarado Solis, Neyra P. “Land and Indigenous Cosmovision,” 127-8.
  12. Subcomandante Marcos. Closing Words to the National Indigenous Forum (1996), 93.
  13. Caracol, the Spanish word for snail shell, is a term the Zapatistas adopted to refer to their autonomous communities.
  14. Aubry, Andres. “Autonomy in the San Andres Accords: Expression and Fulfillment of a New Federal Pact,” 229.
  15. Subcomandante Marcos. “La entrevista insólita.” Proceso.
  16. Subcomandante Marcos. “Subdelegado Zero on Security Issues.”
  17. “The EZLN is not Anarchist: Or Struggles at the Margins and Revolutionary Solidarity.” Willful Disobedience.
  18. Churchill, Ward. “A North American Indigenist View,” 154.
  19. Subcomandante Marcos. “The Retreat is Making Us Almost Scratch the Sky,” 231.
  20. EZLN. Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle.
Works Cited
Alvarado Solis, Neyra P. “Land and Indigenous Cosmovision.” First World, Ha Ha Ha! The Zapatista Challenge. Katzenberger, Elaine, ed. San Francisco: City Lights, 1995.
Aubry, Andres. “Autonomy in the San Andres Accords: Expression and Fulfillment of a New Federal Pact.” Jan Rus, Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo, and Shannan L. Mattiace, eds. Mayan Lives, Mayan Utopias: The Indigenous Peoples of Chiapas and the Zapatista Rebellion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
Burguete Cal y Mayor, Araceli. “The de Facto Autonomous Process: New Jurisdictions and Parallel Governments in Rebellion.” Jan Rus, Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo, and Shannan L. Mattiace, eds. Mayan Lives, Mayan Utopias: The Indigenous Peoples of Chiapas and the Zapatista Rebellion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
Churchill, Ward. “A North American Indigenist View.” First World, Ha Ha Ha! The Zapatista Challenge. Katzenberger, Elaine, ed. San Francisco: City Lights, 1995.
Churchill, Ward. “Indigenism, Anarchism, and the State: An Interview with Ward Churchill.” By Tom Keefer and Jerome Klassen. Upping the Anti, No. 1. http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/01-indigenism-anarchism-and-the-state/.
EZLN. First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. January 1994.
EZLN. Fourth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. January 1996.
EZLN. Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle. June 2005.
Higgins, Nicholas. “The Zapatista Uprising and the Poetics of Cultural Resistance.” Alternatives: Global, Local, Political. Vol. 25, Issue 3, Jul-Sep 2000.
Mattiace, Shannan L. “Mayan Utopias: Rethinking the State.” Jan Rus, Rosalva Aída Hernández Castillo, and Shannan L. Mattiace, eds. Mayan Lives, Mayan Utopias: The Indigenous Peoples of Chiapas and the Zapatista Rebellion. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003.
Subcomandante Marcos. Closing Words to the National Indigenous Forum. (1996) Our Word is Our Weapon: Selected Writings of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. Ponce de Leon, Juana, ed. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001.
Subcomandante Marcos. Conversations with Durito: Stories of the Zapatistas and Neoliberalism. Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2005.
Subcomandante Marcos. “La entrevista insólita.” Proceso. 10 March, 2001. http://palabra.ezln.org.mx/comunicados/2001/2001_03_10_b.htm.
Subcomandante Marcos. “The Retreat is Making Us Almost Scratch the Sky.” (1995) Our Word is Our Weapon: Selected Writings of Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. Ponce de Leon, Juana, ed. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001.
Subcomandante Marcos. “Subdelegado Zero on Security Issues.” December 26, 2005. http://zaptranslations.blogspot.com/2005/12/subdelegado-zero-on-security-issues.html.
Weinberg, Bill. Homage to Chiapas: The New Indigenous Struggles in Mexico. New York: Verso, 2000.
Willful Disobedience, Vol. 2, No. 7. “The EZLN is not Anarchist: Or Struggles at the Margins and Revolutionary Solidarity.” 2001. http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/various-authors-willful-disobedience-volume-2-number-7#toc3.

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